In times of crisis, consciously focusing on Psychological Safety will pay off

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By PIp Murphy

March 12, 2020

It feels like we are on a cliff edge, all waiting for the next piece of breaking news about the Coronavirus.

Every state and territory in Australia is now affected and the numbers are rising daily.[1] High profile politicians and Hollywood celebrities have tested positive to the virus and we don’t know who will be next.[2]

We have all heard how this will affect the global economy. We have been told to expect an increase in people taking sick leave, as well as more people working from home. We have watched in disbelief as Italy and Spain went into lock down.

But for all the news and commentary, I haven’t heard much about what leaders and managers can do to support their people. Here are a few ideas:

How our brains are responding

We are hard-wired to detect threat. It is a primary function of the brain and right now, our brains are on high alert. Even if we do not consciously realise it, there is a pervading distraction.

This is not good for us, or our decision making.

You see, when we operate in a state of high-alert — when we feel threatened — our executive function, where complex thinking takes place, is compromised. Basically, what that means is that we are incapable of making rational decisions. And right now, what the world needs, what business needs, is rational, strategic and considered decision making.

The only way to change it so we make more rational decisions is to lower the level of perceived threats in both your mind, and of the minds of your team.

Building psychological safety

Over the last year, we have been intensely working with our clients to understand and build team habits to build Psychological Safety.

Since Amy Edmondson, from Harvard Business School, released her book, The Fearless Organisation, in 2019, many teams have become more interested in knowing more about this secret to team success.

The big take away from this book is that we are all driven by our interpersonal fear. Imagine there is a continuum in every conversation, whether you are talking directly to a person or in a group setting, and on this continuum somewhere lies a threshold.

Below the threshold, there is enough fear to keep you from expressing yourself. Above the threshold, your desire to speak up about a topic trumps your fear. In times of uncertainty, that fear threshold naturally rises. In other words, as our interpersonal fear levels rise, which is what is occurring at the moment, it becomes harder for us to speak up – it becomes even less instinctive.

It is why leadership is so important right now.

Leaders need to set the stage for their team. Leaders need to explain that we are in unchartered territory; nobody has a crystal ball or the answers. They should be speaking to their team members to find what beliefs, assumptions and emotions are driving their thinking and decision making.

It’s our leaders role to work towards reducing our collective fear and anxiety.

Serendis Leadership has designed a list of 25 team nudges that will increase levels of Psychological Safety. Some of these nudges might seem diabolically simple, but it is amazing how little nudges can result in significantly more openness, transparency and effectiveness in your team, which is particularly important during times of crisis. Below is the list of three popular nudges being adopted by our clients.

 These simple interventions, if practiced consistently, will be more powerful in transforming the dynamic in your team than you can imagine. Just as compound interest is one of the most powerful concepts in finance, yet one of the most simple, the small every day habits in our team deeply influence our long term success.

Around the world, there is enough cause for worry right now. Lead by example. Create a safe environment for your employees, encourage them to speak despite their fears. Where you can, reduce the feelings of fear and anxiety. Lead with calmness through this crisis and chaos.

About Pip Murphy

Pip Murphy is a Director at Serendis Leadership and is a Masters Graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.